Under Matthew Benham’s ownership, Brentford have become a club synonymous with innovative thinking. The Bees have adopted a model that places emphasis and importance on complex statistical data, thereby trying to identify undervalued players that align to their financial situation in the seemingly unsustainable cauldron of the EFL Championship. Nonetheless, their recruitment – the envy of many EFL clubs – has allowed them to remain competitive without risking a financial catastrophe or FFP complications.
With the 2019/20 season being their last at Griffin Park Benham opted to be more aggressive in the summer market of 2019. Bryan Mbeumo arrived for a somewhat hefty £5.65m from Ligue 2 side Troyes to play a starring role on the right-wing. Mathias Jensen added additional midfield creativity while Halil Dervişoğlu (available from January) and Joel Valencia were bought from Sparta Rotterdam and Piast Gliwice in Poland respectively. This outlay has been rewarded – before football was suspended the West London side sat 4th, in a stable play-off position looking to gain promotion to the Premier League.
This tactical analysis in the form a scout report will specifically look at the offensive tactics of Thomas Frank’s philosophy at Brentford and conduct analysis to see why they are the current joint-top scorers in the EFL Championship.
It would be remiss of me to delve into the nuances of Brentford’s attacking tactics without initially outlining their team profile.
4-3-3 has developed into the go-to formation for many coaches in the modern-day. Although formations are, of course, not binary and rigid the 4-3-3 lends itself to the creation of triangles that are helpful in the build-up phase. Frank’s philosophy is particularly possession-based, which is a likely contributing factor for his choice of such a formation. It is worth noting that in the early stages of the season a 3-4-3 was a more common occurrence. However, in the nine games where this system was used only two wins were garnered (a 22.2 win %). Whereas, since the switch to a 4-3-3, out the 28 games played, 15 games have been won (a 53.8 win %).
Above is a graphic which portrays arguably Frank’s first-choice starting 11. The intuitively nicknamed ‘BMW’ front three of Saïd Benrahma, Ollie Watkins and Bryan Mbeumo have contributed a huge amount to the offensive workload. In total, after 37 game-rounds, they’ve got 62 goal contributions between them (goals + assists). In terms of goals, the trio has 46 goals combined, which makes up 71.9% of Brentford’s total goals scored (64), demonstrating their importance on the Bees’ attacking play. Benrahma, in particular, has already been linked with a transfer to Arsenal.
Initial ball progression
Unlike other analysis pieces, this is based entirely upon Brentford’s tactics in-possession – when they have an offensive mindset and are looking to score.
Brentford have a methodical, patient approach to the build-up phase. There isn’t an extremely heavy emphasis on verticality, potentially due to his forwards lacking the necessary physicality to hold off defenders for third man passes. Instead, primarily involving the two centre-backs and lone pivot Christian Nørgaard, Frank wants ball progression that is effective but also controlled. The Dane wishes for his team to be the protagonists, dictating the tempo of a match. This is reflected by Brentford having the third-highest average possession in the league with 56.8%.
Whilst Nørgaard does not drop into defensive line he does have an influential role in ensuring turnovers do not occur in dangerous areas, as well as providing, or shuffling laterally to create, passing lanes. In the example above we see the 26-year-old position himself perfectly to receive off keeper David Raya and split Hull’s first-line.
Brentford’s build-up gives the impetus of launching attacks to the defence, more specifically the centre-backs. When fully-fit the most common pairing is Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock, both summer signings. Jansson came from Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, while Pinnock from Daniel Stendel’s Barnsley – coaches who both have a possession-based philosophy. Both players possess adequate technical quality to be able to play incisive passes to more attacking players in the half-spaces or between the lines. Furthermore, I also see it necessary to mention that Jansson is right-footed whereas Pinnock prefers his left. Having the luxury of this means better angles can be formed with greater pass accuracy. A right-footer playing on the left can be prone to coming back inside, thus not utilising the basic principle of width in the attacking phase.
In the example above we can see the general spacing of Brentford’s build-up. In this scenario, Benrahma has drifted into the half-space with left-back Rico Henry advancing into the vacated wide channel. Pinnock has space to receive and in line with Frank’s philosophy switches the play to Mbeumo on the right who is off-screen.
While the full-backs are naturally attack-minded they are positioned not too aggressively, rather on a similar line to Nørgaard. There is a fine balance between wanting to play on the front-foot and offering progressive passes, but not leaving their defensive partners overly exposed. It is important to note the full-backs’ deeper positioning subsequently gives Mbeumo and left-winger Saïd Benrahma more space to operate. Them not pushing up to a great extent can result in the opposition winger being attracted to them instead of either winger, who are arguably Brentford’s most threatening players. Below we can Henry’s relatively deep location during the build-up phase.
An additional plus of the 4-3-3 compared to the 3-4-3 is the extra man in the midfield. This can be helpful when play is congested on the touchline where they can now be another possible passing lane into the centre. In truth, their mere presence is a positive as it is a further dilemma for the opposition to acknowledge and defend against. In the scenario below Josh Dasilva is situated in the half-space, meaning he is occupying QPR midfielder Geoff Cameron to some degree. However, Benrahma has dropped off on Cameron’s blindside allowing him to receive off left-back Henry. This movement of Dasilva generated issues for Cameron who was left with both Dasilva and Benrahma to mark.
There is an argument to be made that the 3-4-3 saw Brentford’s build-up become unduly predictable. Only having two midfielders, one of which usually being Nørgaard who is rather more focused on being a circulator rather than an actual offensive threat like Dasilva, can contribute to their attacks being too wing-orientated. In contrast, I believe the 4-3-3 allows Frank to include a greater number of creative players and simply put, is more balanced.
Maximising space for the wingers
When you evaluate Brentford’s squad two players who stand out are the first-choice wingers: Benrahma and Mbeumo. Both signed from France, their technical quality is conceivably already Premier League level, which is demonstrated in their output this season. Benrahma has 10 goals and seven assists; Mbeumo’s got 14 goals and seven assists. Therefore, because these are Frank’s most valuable offensive assets, it is logical to maximise their space and involvement in chance creation moves to exploit their dribbling qualities.
Especially with Mbeumo Brentford try and get positional superiority to isolate the winger 1v1 with the opposition full-back. Qualitative superiority can also be prevalent, but this is more difficult to identify as it’s inherently subjective. Furthermore, the pair of them play on the opposite side to their strongest-foot. This means that they tend to cut inside centrally. If they have been initially isolated with the full-back then by doing this action, they would, in theory, be dribbling back towards the shifting defence who are seeking to restore balance and compactness to their shape.
I will now look at some illustrated examples of this. Here above, Dasilva has attracted Hull left-back Stephen Kingsley, before freeing Mbeumo in a great deal of space to attack the centre-back. This is a demonstration of how encouraging opposition defenders to engage can release space elsewhere to be exploited to more skilful players, such as Mbeumo and Benrahma.
In this image above we can see how Benrahma and Mbeumo are positioned on the outside of the defensive line. A movement like this has two consequences. Firstly, as is visible here, the winger now has increased space by pulling wide, and thus time, to attack directly. Moreover, this action has generated a dilemma for the defence: press the winger close to the touchline and reduce his time, but vacate space centrally for midfield runners to exploit. It is a simple tactic but combined with attack-minded central-midfielders like Dasilva and Jensen it can be effective in creating problems for the opponents – this premise is comparable to what Pep Guardiola uses at Manchester City.
Speed is also a facet of the wingers’ game. This is why getting in-behind can be a very useful attacking mechanism. By doing this you put the opponents on the back-foot and force them to backtrack. Such a method helps Brentford to make the best use of their offensive players’ skillset. For example, the wingers can take advantage of the positional superiority they’ve gained, while midfield runners and the other forwards can advance making supporting runs into and around the box for potential crosses and cut-backs. In the situation below Watkins have initiated an up-back-through combination by setting Benrahma to consequently release Mbeumo, who has got goal-side of his marker.
A similar scenario arises below, eventually leading to a goal. Emiliano Marcondes splits the Sheffield Wednesday defensive line to play Mbeumo in-behind and score.
I referred earlier to Brentford’s reputation as innovative thinkers, whereby they are always seeking marginal gains.
Set-pieces are a tool, that if used appropriately, can provide a competitive advantage over teams who are still basic in their thinking. As per their strategy and club identity, the club employs a coach whose single-focus is on set-pieces. Looking at the statistics the results of this investment are relatively good. 12 goals have been scored from set-pieces this season, with the league average being 10.1. These 12 goals make up 19% of all their total goals scored.
The first example against Birmingham above portrays an effective use of blockers to create space for an aerially dominant player. Brentford completely overload the far-post with five of their most physically dominant players, then also impinging on the goalkeeper. Benrahma has come short, therefore dragging two Birmingham players with him in case of a short corner routine, emptying the box some more. The corner-taker Marcondes flatly drills the ball to the back-post, where the 6’ 1” Pinnock has peeled off, but because of his teammates acting as blockers he is free and scores, seen below.
A similar routine is apparent versus Swansea below. Once more Benrahma has offered the option to play it short, although only one Swansea player has been drawn out this time. Elsewhere, five Brentford have packed out the GK and far-post zone. This extreme occupation of the far-post zone is naturally attracting Swansea markers, resulting in an underload of the near-post area. The delivery isn’t as accurate though; therefore Pinnock is deeper when receiving and isn’t able to directly go for goal. However, the former Barnsley man does head back across to Mbeumo who can nod in from the near-post zone.
It is also worth highlighting the presence of Brentford players on the edge of the box in those two examples. They can either help sustain attacks or occupy defensive players, allowing for greater space in and around the six-yard box.
The next tactic is different than the preceding ones as it is against a zonal-marking set-up in West Brom. The hallmark of Benrahma’s positioning nearby is still visible below, but there is no intense overload present in any zone. What is clear though is there is a large amount of space available in the near-post region. The subsequent frame illustrates the situational aspects better. It seems there has been a conscious effort not to stand in this region, a number of the taller Brentford players are spaced out and in deeper positions. Nevertheless, Henrik Dalsgaard makes a diagonal run into the unoccupied space and scores via a glancing header.
These are great examples of the offensive team taking the initiative in a set-piece situation and being rewarded.
There have also been instances where their routines for free-kicks have been quite interesting. In the image above we can see how depth is being provided, with those also acting as blockers. Dasilva begins the sequence with a dummy run over the ball. The number 10 Benrahma curves his run to finish on the move from a central location that is unoccupied because of his teammates’ actions, which are vital to its success.
Brentford have some of the best-attacking players in the whole of the EFL Championship, illustrated by their individual output this season and the Bees having scored 64 goals in 37 games (a rate of 1.73 per game). 12 goals have originated from set-piece situations, 19% of their overall total – showing the importance of them in football and how worthwhile having an individual coach for them is.
Mbeumo and Benrahma on either flank have excellent technical ability and Frank seeks to get the most out of them, mainly by allowing them to remain wide knowing midfielders like Dasilva and Jensen will still provide balance as well as Nørgaard having the capability to feed them.